Archive Posts

Winter Brown

Invariably, when the trout season opens in Yorkshire, many a river angler will be seen fishing a team of north country wet flies through the cold and often low and clear rivers of March and April. Armed with a handsome selection of spiders bought or dressed in the winter months, fly-boxes will brim with customary dressings and personal favourites.

Like me, many will also be prepared with hand tied, two dropper leaders. And the possibility of early season insect hatches will be mulled over before the first three-fly cast of the season is tied up. For many anglers’ patterns such as the Waterhen Bloa and Dark Snipe & Purple will form the backbone of these early season casts, often complemented with a Spring Black, Greenwell or even a March Brown to form the first three fly cast of the season.

Fishing the Winter Brown on the River Swale

But in this list of early season spider patterns, one traditionally essential fly pattern for early season success is often overlooked. The pattern being the Winter Brown, which was in times past, was often the first fly added to an early season cast. In times past, any cursory delve into a Yorkshire fly-fishing wallet would turn up examples of the Winter Brown in its many guises and incarnations, showing it to be a staple of early season trout fishing and winter grayling fishing.

However, the modern angler has overlooked this most valuable of early season patterns. Often being blindsided by “expert” magazine articles and social media posts which focus solely on early season “Spring Olive” hatches. Thankfully, after over forty years of tying and fishing north country spiders, I still firmly class myself as an enthusiast rather than an expert!

The Winter Brown is part of canon of traditional Needle Fly patterns which feature a finished head of either peacock or magpie herl. Invented to represent the earliest hatching species of stonefly commonly found on the freestone rivers of the Dales. Variations of the dressing can be found in countless north country publications, including Michael Theakston’s A List of Natural Flies published in 1853. Here, Theakston classes the adult stonefly under the umbrella of “Browns” and then breaks them down into individual species which include: The Needle Brown, Early Brown (winter brown), Little Early, Red Brown, Royal Charlie, Light Brown, Mottled Brown, Stonefly, Blo Brown, Yellow Brown and Orange Brown.

Theakston’s stated dressing of the Early Brown (Winter Brown) is similar to the more recognised “Wharfedale” version of the fly but omits the familiar peacock herl head and features the use of a Woodcock undercover feather bunched and split as a wing rather than a hackle. Quite where on the cast Theakston positioned this fly is unknown, but I have found it to be an excellent fly for the top dropper. In the often low and clear water of early season, it gives me that “sighter” during the flies drift through broken water.

Theakston’s dressing of the Winter Brown using seal’s fur instead of mohair.

The more familiar hackled version of the Winter Brown sticks to the more typical idea of a traditional stonefly dressing. Typically, a dressing of orange silk body, hackled with a woodcock’s undercovert and finished with peacock herl head. This dressing is found in many publications and private manuscripts, clearly showing us how effective it was in the early season, and how highly it was thought of by our north country angling forefathers.

Standard dressing of the Winter Brown.

However, for the past few of seasons I have fished more and more with Sylvester Lister’s version of the Winter Brown, which features a dressing of brown body silk. It’s a pattern that has increasingly found its way on to the point fly position of my three-fly cast and regularly picks up a healthy share of early season trout. Unlike many of my spider patterns, I’ve taken to following Lister’s example and wax the silk heavily but have added a little trick of my own by polishing the tying silk with greaseproof paper in an attempt to replicate the sheen of the natural insect’s body. Quite what old Sylvester would have thought about my attempts, I dread to think. But he would no doubt of approved of my choice of a winter brown for an early season cast.

Sylvester Lister’s dressing of the Winter Brown.

The Fancy Flies of T.K. Wilson

During his service in the R.A.F. the well-known angler and author T.K. Wilson planned the idea of a book dedicated to the subject of “Fancy Flies”. Unfortunately, Wilson’s intended publication never came to fruition, with the intending author having instead to settle on producing a series of articles in the Angling Magazine based around his original idea and notes.
At the recent British Fly Fair International, I was given two of Wilson’s preparatory notebooks by the renowned author and grayling angler John Roberts, as well as an envelope containing several drafts of Wilson’s intended forward for the proposed book.

T.K. Wilson’s notebooks

Upon reading through Wilson’s notebooks and jottings, I was surprised to find how much the contents of Wilson’s original notes changed when eventually coming to print. A prime example being the story behind Blades’ Purple Dun which is given a fuller rendition in his notebooks, but shortened by over a page in his published magazine article. In his notes, Wilson also mentions that it was F.M. Halford who accompanied Walbran on his visit to fish with James Blades on the River Ure. Whereas, in his published article omits the Halford reference and simply refers to a “south-country fisherman of national repute.”
In writing about Blade’s signature pattern, Wilson mentions that the Purple Dun had been a popular Yorkshire grayling fly for over half a century, and quotes Blades as saying, “best for trout from July onwards, then whole of the season for grayling.”

Blade’s Purple Dun

Hook: No.1 Body: Purple silk dubbed with peacock herl, ribbed over with purple silk.
Hackle: From a blue andalusian cock or hen.

Born in 1902, Wilson moved from Westmorland to become the Ticket Master at Barnoldswick railway station. Writing under the nom de plume of “Broughton Point”, Wilson contributed many fishing articles for a varied range of magazines and newspapers, including The Angling Times, Dalesman, Trout and Salmon and the Yorkshire Post. His final book Trout By All Means completed shortly before his death and published posthumously contains still relevant sections on wet and dry fly-fishing for trout and grayling on Yorkshire’s rivers.

Amongst the patterns listed by Wilson for insertion in his projected book were the Ridsdale’s Special and Ridsdale’s Favourite. Two dry fly patterns invented by Austin Ridsdale from the small village of Mickley which lies beside the River Ure just above West Tanfield. And it is Wilson’s inclusion of these two patterns that shows how serendipity often takes a hand. For in my collection of north country fly manuscripts, I also have Austin Ridsdale’s own fly manuscript contained within a Boots “Home Diary” for 1931. Thus, allowing me the opportunity to cross-reference Wilson’s notes with Ridsdale’s original manuscript dressings and therefore spot Wilson’s mistake in setting down both Ridsdale’s dressings.

Austin Ridsdale’s Fly manuscript

Sadly, for his legion of readers, T.K. Wilson in his notes confuses the title of both of Ridsdale’s fly patterns, by attaching the wrong dressing to each fly. The fly called the “Ridsdale’s Favourite” should in fact be called “Ridsdale’s Fancy”, and the recipes for both fly patterns should be swapped over.

Wilson’s misplace and wrongly named dressing for the Ridsale’s fancy
Ridsdale’s actual dressing for the Ridsdale’s Fancy
Ridsdale’s actual dressing of the Ridsdale’s Special

The Summer Goose

A Curious Case Of A North Country Spider Dressing

In the wide gamut of curious names ascribed to north country spiders, the old fly-fishers of Wharfedale had it appears a penchant for the plain obscure. To the casual reader, unusual fly names predominate the many fly lists and handwritten manuscripts associated with fly-fishing on the River Wharfe. And it is easy to become bewildered by the array of old colloquial names for various game and songbirds which frequent the pages of many Wharfedale fly-fishing lists. Indeed, the inclusion of words such as Bloa, Blows and Watchet regarding the colouration of a natural insect and its corresponding artificial fly sometimes takes the level of bewilderment to a stage bordering on insanity!

And as though not happy with their lot, the old timers threw into this maelstrom of obscurity the neat trick of substituting hackles. Making it almost impossible to judge where substitution ends and invention starts. The old Otley angler and flydresser William Robinson gives us a classic example of this conundrum. In his fly manuscript he lists the Winter Brown and the Brown Owl as the same pattern dressed with a hackle taken from the outside an owl’s wing. As both the fly patterns were well known on the river Wharfe and throughout local angling circles, it is plausible that Robinson simply made a mistake and confused both patterns when writing his list. Certainly, he’s not the only one to confuse the naming of local fly patterns, a browse through the many Wharfdale fly lists shows many fly names and dressing mixed and jumbled up.

So, what of the Summer Goose? Well, a cursory look at Jonathan Pickard’s 1820 list of north country spiders uncovers an obscure fly called the Summer Glory with its dressing of –

#No.4 The Summer Glory

Hook: Doesn’t say
Silk: Ash
Body: Ash coloured silk
Wing: Winged from a starling
Hackle: Starling

Jonathan Pickard’s Dressing of the Summer Glory 1820

So, what’s so interesting about this obscure Wharfedale trout fly? Well, does it metamorphose into another pattern, or are later flydressers mixing up dressings again? Well, let’s see…
In James Whitaker’s manuscript of Wharfedale flies he lists Pickard’s original dressing but renames the fly “Summer Goose”.

James Whitaker’s Dressing of the Summer Goose

But curiously William Robinson of Otley later in his own Wharfedale list of fly patterns includes a fly called the Summer Goose but with a different dressing.

William Robinson’s Summer Goose

Hook: 0
Silk: Ash
Body: Ash coloured silk
Wing: Winged from the wing of a hedge sparrow or starling
Hackle: Lapwings topping
Head: Magpie herl

And as we can see, the names of the two flies Summer Glory and Summer Goose are very similar, and the dressings likewise. Although, including a herl head and the use of a darker hackle confuses the matter somewhat. Is it too far of a stretch to say that these two patterns share a common origin? I think not. In fact, if we continue our travel down through the years and subsequent Wharfedale fly lists, we find that the Summer Glory has disappeared and that the Summer Goose with its new dressing is being listed instead. An example of this is William Brumfitt’s List of Wharfedale flies, where he gives the same dressing as Robinson. Possibly explained because Robinson and Brumfitt were related, and that Brumfitt is keeping up the family tradition of tying and fishing this dressing. But wait, this is Wharfedale after all, someone needs to throw the proverbial spanner in the works!

William Brumfitt’s dressing of the Summer Goose

Enter stage right, another famous Wharfedale angler and flytyer Thomas Chippendale. It is believed that Chippendale was an apprentice to Brumfitt and was allegedly taught to dress flies by the great man himself. So, you would assume that the Brumfitt’s and Chippendale’s dressing would be the same. But no, Chippendale inexplicably reverts to the earlier Pickard dressing of 1820, but confuses the matter even more by keeping the new name of Summer Goose.

Chippendale’s Summer Goose Dressing

Hook: Cipher
Silk: Ash
Body: Ash coloured silk
Wing: Winged from a quill feather of a Starling
Hackle: Starling undercovert

It could be, of course, that Tommy Chip had at some point access to Pickard’s 1820 list and simply attributed the Summer Glory with the now more familiar Summer Goose and copied the wrong dressing. Sadly, we will never know. But the Summer Glory or Goose gives an example of just how bewildering the origins of the various Wharfdale and wider north country spider patterns can be. Not only did the old boys swap and substitute materials, but they also swapped or changed names of the same fly!

But what of the rather strange name given to this fly pattern with no goose feather used in its dressing. In their fly lists and manuscripts, all the Wharfedale flydressers give the prescribed month for fishing this fly as March. But the only reference I can find regarding “Summer Goose” is in relation to the feast day of St Martin. which falls on 11th November.

Legend has it that when the young Martin was accosted by a half-naked beggar on a bleak day in November, he took pity on the poor unfortunate soul and cut his cloak in half and gave half to clothe the beggar. Upon seeing this generous act, God was so pleased that he let the sun shine warmly on the saintly half cloaked Martin for several days, until he could repair his cloak. And it is thought ever since that God has commemorated Martin’s act of kindness by sending us a few days of warm weather each November becoming known as a “St Martin’s Summer”. But what of the goose?

Well, it seems Martin’s Christian piety didn’t go unnoticed, and much to his alarm, he was to be elevated to Bishop of Tours. Having got wind of his coming ordination, the shy Martin ran away and hid in a barn, but his place of hiding was given away by the honking of a noisy goose who attracted his Church pursuant to his place of hiding. After his ordination, Martin, of course, takes revenge on the noisy goose and has it killed and served for dinner, establishing the old tradition of eating goose on St Martin’s Day. It also explains why “St Martin’s Summer” is often called the “Goose Summer”.

St Martin’s story also has an interesting twist in the tail for us fly-tyers. With many species of spider migrating over long distances with the aid of an autumnal breeze. On sunny, breezy days in November spiders will drift through the air attached to their silken threads. After coming to ground the spider releases the thread that carried it along, and the stray threads are often seen drifting with the breeze and shimmering in the “Goose Summer” sunlight. It seemed appropriate to call it “Goose Summer” thread or, as we know it today, gossamer!

A Manuscript Of Flies

It immediately intrigued me when the catalogue for an upcoming auction first appeared in my inbox. When amongst the usual lots of fishing reels and assorted bric-à-brac, I spied a “A Framed List Of Artificial Yorkshire Trout Flies with dressings, tying instructions and examples of 36 flies. Frame dedicated to J Todd 1861-1945 Masham. Along with a notebook of additional fly dressings.

Auction Lot

The framed flies were almost a mirror image of several velum manuscripts of Wharfedale dressings I already owned, as well as other north country manuscripts I had previously seen. However, I was curious that these framed flies were dedicated to John Todd, Fisherman & Gamekeeper, Masham 1861 to 1945. A name that didn’t ring any bells, or appear in any book, magazine, or local newspaper article, to my knowledge. I was, as I say, intrigued.

So, on the morning of the auction, I drove north up the A1, to have a closer inspection of the framed fly manuscript before formally bidding on the lot. At first sight, it convinced that I had seen it before, and that it was a mirror to several manuscripts already in my collection. However, the small inscription to John Todd troubled me. Could Todd have been the dresser of these flies when instinct informed me that the framed manuscript must have originated in Otley, and that a more famous name would be present on the covered back of the manuscript. There was only one way to find out. I had to place the winning bid on this auction lot!

Thankfully, after several minutes of bidding and with the lot price teetering towards three figures, the hammer fell, and the framed manuscript of flies and another notebook of fly patterns was in the bag.

On arriving at home, I quickly removed the manuscript from its frame to reveal the tell tale name of its originator, William Brumfitt, something I had instinctively always known.

Brumfitt’s signature

William Brumfitt was in many regards an aristocrat amongst Wharfedale anglers and credited by T. E. Pritt in his 1885 & 1886 publications as “an accomplished angler and excellent fly-dresser”. Born into a family of anglers, William Brumfitt must have surely come under the wing of his grandfather Timothy Thackray and uncle William Robbinson, both of whom were themselves notable anglers and fly dressers and contributed to the foundation of the Wharfedale style of dressing wet flies.

Wharfedale Manuscripts
Brumfitt’s Fly Dressings

The framed manuscript illustrates the influence of Thackray and Robbinson and contains many of the fly dressings found in their own individual fly lists. These themselves could also owe their origins to the earlier 1820 manuscript of Jonathan Pickard. The dressed flies are on blued sneck hooks attached to single horsehair droppers. Brumfitt’s familiar handwritten recipe and notes accompany each individual fly dressing with the individual fly lovingly stitched to the velum parchment of the manuscript. Unlike other similar manuscripts, it has a detailed list of “Feathers, downy fur and silks required for making the forgoing flies”. These materials have little changed and are as familiar to north country fly dressers as they were in Brumfitt’s time, though now sadly much scarcer. His list of silks, shows no Pearsalls’ predilection, and ranges from “Drab or Straw” to “Gingerbread Brown”. On the back of the manuscript, again in Brumfitt’s familiar handwriting, is the inscription: “Copy of an ancient flydressers key to flies. Flies tied by W Brumfitt, Yorkshire flyfisherman. February 1874”.

Brumfitt’s Silks

Given the numbers of these Brumfitt, Thackray and Robbinson manuscripts which were produced from the late 1820 onwards (I myself now have seven in my collection). It is entirely possible that these manuscripts were produced for the wider angling public at large and were the fountainhead of the Wharfedale and wider north country school that became popular with Pritt’s publications of 1885 & 1886.

Brumfitt’s Brown Watchet & Yellow Linnet
Brumfitt’s Grey Watchet
Brumfitt’s Large Thorn Fly Dun
Portrait of William Brumfitt dated 1930

The Golden Days of Romilly Fedden

Fly-fishing books of the period between the two world wars have long maintained a deep individual fascination. They are my personal hinterland, granting me the space to think; to take time out and evaluate what’s genuinely important. In the age of immediacy, selfishness and social media, these texts bring a slowness of pace and an idyllic reflection of times past. They also remind me that there is more to fishing than simply catching fish. Whether intentional or not, these books reveal a human story. And allow me a backward glance towards that half concealed world of an angling past.

Romilly Fedden’s Golden Days From The Fishing Log Of A Painter In Brittany offers a perfect illustration of how a long forgotten angling book can pull you backwards through a century of tumultuous change. This wonderfully evocative book composed during the horrors of trench life during the First World War. Serves as an unspoiled pastoral counterpoint to the horrors Fedden undoubtably witnessed.

The book’s unnerving prologue opens with Fedden’s jubilant recollective scene of a day’s fishing in France, before a darkening tone pervades with the rising drone of a bi-plane overhead. The day’s tranquillity to be shattered by a salvo of artillery shells and shrapnel. In only a half a sentence, Fedden takes us from the tranquility of water-meadows to the annihilation of the front line.

Spring Fishing and Random Memories

In his opening chapter entitle Spring Fishing, Fedden at once transports us away from the trenches to an earlier time fishing the Celtic moorlands of Brittany. Like the rest of his book, this chapter captures the joys of fishing in an unsentimental and yet human tone. Within a few simple sentences he firmly puts his finger on the often neglected subtle pleasure of angling.

“Of course, being human, we all like to catch fish: and yet, is it not the desire to catch rather than the catching which is more than half the fun?”

In a later chapter titled Random Memories, Fedden again touches on the enjoyments of angling, this time in the imagined company of Izaak Walton. Quoting Walton’s perfectly condensed three lines on the art of casting.

“You have length enough; stand a little further-off, let me entreat you, and do but fish the stream like an artist, and peradventure, a good fish may fall to your share.”

But immediately confirming that the genuine pleasures in angling are not to be found in tackle and technique.

“Who with such a fascinating mentor at his side could venture to discourse on rods and lines and tackles, or attempt the exact precepts of the angler’s lore? No: our only hope is to be frankly irrelevant, just to talk of the days and the pleasures we have loved, so perchance we may stir kindred memories, and others may be able to slip into a corner of our mood and share with us some of the delight of happy moments.
Oh, if this were only easy! But the nature of a fisherman’s joy is a subtle quality. It cannot be adequately expressed in written characters, nor is it occasioned by the mere catching of fish. Birds come into it, and flowers and the spring sunshine, and there is nature-magic, too, which even winged words would fail to touch.”

An Autumn Fishing

The circumstances of its writing give Golden Days an unnerving quality. Like the thoughts of many combatants in the forward trenches, it switches at a heartbeat from images of piscatorial tranquillity to moments of rage against the politics and materialism which placed them there. In his chapter An Autumn Fishing, Fedden takes us from the “blatant reek of war” to salmon fishing scenes in Brittany via the flower markets of Picardy. A Juxtaposition that is as absurd as the realities of war and trench life. The chapter details his experience of salmon fishing in Brittany before the onset of war. Accompanied by his ever-present friend Jean Pierre, Fedden not only catches a couple of salmon, including a fresh-run fish of 19 lb. But he creates a narrative that is the very essence of the struggle between man and fish. Drawing the chapter to a close with the convivial scene of conversations with local hunters in a Bretton village inn.

“They, like their weapons, are old and out of date. They live with nature under open skies; they still see visions and at times are “fey,” so meet, despite their poverty, some joy upon the road.
We found many friends around the open hearth, not least among them being the tired dogs, who lay with sleepy heads on splattered, steaming paws, before the glow; too weary to be roused, they gave us salutation by kindly flaps of tails upon the hearthstone.”


Like all great angling books, Golden Days is not simply about fishing. It is about something more meaningful and intimate: this book is about man’s need for escapement through angling’s tranquil soothing balm. Amidst the horror of the trenches, he paints a skilful memory of peaceful earlier days. Colouring an artistic narrative with a half-guilty, nostalgic pleasure, during some of history’s darkest days.
Brittany with its wild and beautiful countryside permeates through every page of Fedden’s book. Through his words, the region’s wild trout streams convert into the very syllables of the page. Though the book contains stark and harrowing thoughts and images of war, these do not make up the very essence of the book. It is Fedden’s deep love of Brittany, with its landscape and people that bubble up from the text. His love of angling enthuses the book – but his love of Brittany permeates every page.

Upon its publication in 1919 the mathematician Selig Brodetsky, reviewed the book with these most poignant words.

Here is a book full of quiet charm and humour, written by one who is evidently not only an artist and a sportsman, but also a true lover and observer of Nature and her ways. The angler will be fascinated by the vivid descriptions of trout-and salmon-fishing in Brittany. There are no improbable fisherman’s yarns to invite his scepticism, but their place is taken by some delightful stories of saints and miracles drawn from the Breton folk-lore, so that the book appeals quite as much to the general reader as to the piscatorial fraternity. It is a pleasant narrative, well suited to while away a winter evening at the fireside and to conjure up visions of sunlit meadows, fragrant pinewoods, and murmuring streams, though tinged, alas! by that vein of sadness which must colour the day-dreams of all of us at the present time, and especially of those who, like the author, have witnessed at close quarters the tragedy of the last few years.

Arthur Romilly Fedden (1875-1939)

Born into a prosperous Gloucestershire family in 1875, Arthur Romilly Fedden was an English artist and watercolourist who studied under Hubert von Herkomer at Bushey, before later moving on to study at the Académie Julian in Paris. Developing a deep love for Brittany and its trout streams, he set down his early recollections of the golden era fishing rivers before the outbreak of the First World War.

‘Faustine’, c1900. Arthur Romilly Fedden.

Though in his early forties at the outbreak of war, Fedden volunteered and served as a captain with the British Expeditionary Forces on the frontline, with his book Golden Days From The Fishing Log Of A Painter In Brittany being published in 1919 and later republished in 1949.
He married the American writer Katharine Waldo Douglas and illustrated her book on the Basque Country. However, in 1939 tragedy struck the couple when they both died of injuries sustained in the famous crash of the Sud Express in March 1939. Their bodies being interned in the small graveyard overlooking the sea at St. Jean De Luz, France, in April 1939.

My own copy of Fedden’s Golden Days From The Fishing Log Of A Painter In Brittany, has itself a hint of poignancy being inscribed with a letter from Harfield Edmonds author of Brook and River Trouting. The second paragraph of which points the Edmonds’ own personal relationship with the tragedy of war, through the death of his son Peter, a Spitfire pilot in 1941.

Harfield Edmonds Letter

Trout Fishing On Hill Streams

In his introduction to Trout Fishing On Hill Streams, Richard Clapham remarks “that on rock, fast-flowing streams the “one-fly” man can easily kill as many or more trout than the angler with the bulging flybook who is for ever changing his feathered lures.”

In his introduction to Trout Fishing On Hill Streams, Richard Clapham remarks “that on rock, fast-flowing streams the “one-fly” man can easily kill as many or more trout than the angler with the bulging flybook who is for ever changing his feathered lures.”

Clapham’s testimony is one that I can easily accept, having fished many small and boisterous becks, including the Austwick Beck, where Clapham served his angling apprenticeship. I notice that trout in these small streams are more opportunistic and less restrained than their relatives in fuller rivers and streams. Not that small stream trout are any less weary. They are skittish and more hypersensitive to movement and danger than lowland trout. But their environment is sparse and often brutal, allowing them little opportunity to pick their prey. And are more inclined to take the angler’s fly regardless of the pattern. And as Clapham notes

“Thus, to tie your flies in imitation of particular insects is sheer waste of time. Nor is the colour of your flies important.”

Increasingly, as seasons progress, I am turning away from larger rivers, and concentrating my fishing on the many small upland becks of the dales. In my need for solitude and simplicity, I follow Clapham’s maxim more and more. Though not in any sense a “one fly” man, I have, however, streamlined my fly choice down to three or four general dry and wet fly patterns. And as Clapham alludes, my catch rate hasn’t changed. Indeed, the smaller fly choice has concentrated the mind more. The early season befuddlement of whether to choose a Greenwell or Waterhen Bloa during a flush of Large Dark Olives has disappeared. My “Small Stream” fly-box is diminutive, and my fly choice stripped down to a bare minimum.

On these small becks and streams, fly choice is more about profile than imitation. Unlike Clapham, my flies are a mixture of the chubby and the sleek, with the individual patterns being able to cover many bases. I must confess, my one large divergence from the philosophy of Clapham is that I lean towards fuller dressed patterns, particularly regarding dry fly’s, as these are easier to track on the boisterous surface of a small stream. As with Clapham, colour is unimportant. It is simply all about profile and suggestion, and the necessity for both fish and fisher to see the fly.
Of course, when fishing wet flies in these rowdy becks and streams, it is often impossible for the angler to see the drifting fly in the turbulent waters. But to my thinking, the patterns should be sparse in the body, but fuller in the hackle. Allowing the trout more of an opportunity to detect and encounter the fly in these chaotic currents.

Continue reading “Trout Fishing On Hill Streams”

Fishing The Upstream Wet Fly in Pocket Waters

Fishing The Upstream Wet Fly in Pocket Waters

The upstream presentation of traditional soft hackled wet flies on rivers is a subject close to my heart. It is a presentation method I favour, even though it is not a productive searching technique for trout and requires more effort than a downstream presentation. However, it has to be said that I can more often than not be found casting my wet flies upstream in certain situations and on certain types of water. Particularly in turbulent pocket water!

Although many have simplistically attributed the invention of the upstream wet fly to W.C. Stewart and his publication The Practical Angler, or The Art of Trout-Fishing More Particularly Applied to Clear Water of 1857. The reality is, however, something different. For centuries anglers were at the mercy of three contributing factors which controlled the practical presentation of their flies. Namely, the strength and direction of the wind, coupled with the often crude nature of the fishing tackle they were using, principally horsehair lines and rudimentary fly rods. That’s not to say however that a kind of dapping technique was employed to fish the flies. Traditional light horsehair lines and leaders were quite capable of being cast in shall we say a modern manner. A cursory look at the technique of modern Tenkara angler shows how a cast could be executed with traditional horsehair lines and leaders. However, these traditional horsehair lines were incredibly light, and any stiff breeze would have forced a rethink in the direction of the presentation of the flies. Especially in the case of some traditional north country fly casts, where a point fly was often attached to a single strand of hair!  So, it becomes quite clear that wet flies must have been fished in an all-round manner, dictated by wind and stream conditions. Stewart, of course, recognises these occasional “upstreamers” within his text but goes on to state that he has never seen anglers consistently fishing upstream wet flies “artistically”, which is his code for skilfully. I would argue that just because Stewart has not seen these skilful anglers, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Henry Cadman writing in Harry Druidale Fisherman From Manxland To England stated that he fished both upstream and downstream before Stewart. Whilst also stating

“I recommend every man or boy who wishes to become a good angler to read Stewart’s Practical Angler, but I must state that I think that if Mr Stewart had lived to attain the age of sixty years, and republished his book shortly before his death, he would have considerably modified some of the opinions expressed in his Practical Angler.”

What Stewart brings to the table, is a methodical examination of the merits of a short line upstream presentation of a sunken fly, profoundly influencing a later generation of celebrated wet fly anglers including G.E.M. Skues, Edmonds & Lee, and James Leisenring.
Although, as Paul Schullery succinctly asks Where did he (Stewart) ever get the idea that the wind only blows upstream or downstream and hardly ever across the stream?”

Upstream Wet Fly Fishing

From experience, I have come to view the fishing of upstream spiders as more of a targeting tactic rather than searching tactic. For an upstream presentation of spiders to be consistently successful, there needs to be a form of hatch situation going on, with fish “looking up” and aggressively focusing on emerging or trapped insects in the final few inches of the water column. In essence, the real key to successful upstream wet fly fishing is to be found in the timings of its application, coupled with the characteristics of the water being targeted.
On turbulent boulder-strewn pocket waters, where fish have little time to respond to the drifting fly. The window of opportunity to fish the upstream wet fly is greater, as trout are less circumspect in their selection of food. But presentation still must be keenly studied, as drag is more noticeable in these areas due to confluence of many different currents squeezing between the boulders. Reducing the amount of fly line on the water to a bare minimum is key in these situations. As is modifying your leader length and taper, to easily turn over your team of flies at such short range. Modifying your casting action by opening the casting loop aids this short-line presentation and leads to fewer tangles when using a shorter 3-fly rig. For my part when fishing these pocket waters, I have increasingly turned to the use of Luke Bannister’s 3½ft furled leaders, with the addition of 4ft of 6x (3.2lb) Hardy Copolymer tippet material, giving a basic leader configuration of 7½ft in length. The use of a short furled leader greatly improves the turnover of the flies at the required short distance, whilst also allowing the angler to keep as much fly line off the water as possible. Depending on the nature of the stream being fished, it is even possible with this set-up to fish with no fly line out of the rod tip.

Of course, spending hours designing and tying up various leader designs and tapers are no good if an angler doesn’t master or at least consider the many and varied intricacies within the spectrum of the upstream presentation of wet flies. And how flow-dynamics not only affect the presentation of the flies but also the required design characteristics of the flies themselves. I’m a great believer not only in trigger points within a fly design but also trigger points within the actual presentation of the flies themselves. For instance, if the fish are actively feeding on struggling emerging insects, then our flies and the presentation should accurately suggest this with the kick and buzz of an emerging insect. Likewise, if the fish are feeding on drifting spinners, then our flies should mimic this with as much dead drift as possible.
When fishing upstream wet flies in fast pocket waters I have found that increasing the fly size as well as using patterns with discernible trigger points is often the key to success. Patterns such as the winged Greenwell Glory, Dark Bloa or a heavily hackled March Brown, often out fish other soft hackled patterns by a large margin.  Another tactic to use in these pocket waters is to place a slightly weighted pattern as the point fly in order to provide some slight check to the drift of the flies. However, I must include this caveat – that it is the method that catches the fish, not just the fly. In other words, the “right” fly presented in the wrong way will not catch as many fish as the “wrong” fly fished in the right way.

So, what is a successful upstream method that catches fish in pocket waters? Well, the often-repeated maxim of casting a rod length of line in these situations is sadly incorrect and doesn’t offer the angler the required level of touch and control needed in this water type. The onstream reality of fishing these pocket waters is that presentation is mainly “leader only”. Ultra-short presentations and drifts coupled with a long rod held at a high incline bypass the need for anything more than a few feet of line existing beyond the rod tip. Of course, in less turbulent and more uniform water, a greater degree of fly-line may be extended beyond the rod tip. However, using a minimal amount of fly line and focussing on a technique where only the leader and flies are on the water allows us to constantly stay in contact and control of the flies. This coupled with the raising of the long rod affords the ability to imperceptibly bring the flies back towards us at a slightly faster pace than the water, fishing in almost induced-taking manner.
The often-quoted line about the exceptional upstream wet fly angler instinctively sensing the take and tightening into fish, is because the onlooker has missed the subtle induced take of the fly as it drifts back to the angler imperceptibly quicker than the streams own current.

Upstream Wet Fly Fishing Video courtesy and copyright of Fishing Discoveries

To fish upstream wet flies successfully and consistently in broken pocket waters, you need a long rod capable of casting a very light line. My preference is for a 10ft Marryat Tactical rod matched to a 3 weight line, it can load short casts with no fly line so is perfect for my furled leader and tippet combination. This configuration gives me the ability to fish short casts often with no fly line outside the tip and is light enough to not cause fatigue when holding the rod high and tracking the wet flies through the drift. I also prefer to cast my flies upstream at an angle of between 10 and 20 degrees, concentrating first on the slower creases behind boulders before turning my attention to fish the faster seams squeezing between the rocks and stones. Lastly, as I progress up through these areas, I start to concentrate on fishing the cushions of quiet water in font of boulders, in the hope of picking up fish in these areas. It is not as some dry fly purists believe, a chuck it and chance it method of fishing. Small areas are specifically targeted, casts are adjusted, and drift angles constantly changed. Fishing is fast, kept to a maximum of two or three drift through the targeted area before moving ever upstream. The push of the river’s current and the rocky nature of stream often make wading difficult, but a fish taken in such circumstances is more rewarding. In the words of F.E. Tudor writing in his 1955 in publication, Trout In Troubled Waters. “A day’s fishing here involves physical toil. But it is worth it!”

For any reader wishing to learn more about the art of fishing wet flies, I would recommend they visit the Fishing Discoveries website and read their fascinating article on wet flies and wet fly fishing.

Typical pocket water on the river Wharfe.

Smoke Fly

Smoke Fly

Back in the dim and distant past when I penned The North Country Fly. My purpose was to illuminate lesser known north country fly patterns. Hoping a modern generation of anglers and fly-tyers would embrace these once widely used, but now largely forgotten flies. At the top of this hopefully resurgent fly list were two peculiar fly patterns, the Duel Cruik and the Smoke Fly. And it is, in many respects, the dressing and fishing of the later that I looked to revive. So much so, that the pattern has served as somewhat of a litmus test to the effective message of the book.

Taught to dress North Country patterns at a youthful age, the diminutive and rather dumpy Smoke Fly caught my eye from the outset. It had the benefits of being straightforward to dress and covered endless possibilities on the water’s surface. The ideal partnership for any budding flytyer! As a youth, fishing under the tree-lined reaches of the River Wharfe at Denton, the Smoke Fly was never off my cast. Frequently, it took its fair percentage of trout before the bus took me home. Then, as now, I dressed and fish the Smoke Fly in several incarnations, both as dry fly, and north country spider. And like any fly containing the magical ingredient of peacock herl, it never fails in picking up its fair share of trout and grayling.

Even though the childhood reaches of my river have been long abandoned for more expensive beats, the Smoke Fly still populates my fly box in significant quantities. When dressing this pattern as a dry fly, I replace the regularly used hackle with the finest Light Dun cock hackle I can find. And with a small, neat tail of similar fibres I continue the character of a northern tradition and wrap the hackle sparingly for a dry fly. As rings dimple the rosiness of the reflected sky, and the summer evenings cool, trout eagerly absorb this dry fly’s charms. It seems to cover many bases. The dark iridescent shimmer of the peacock herl can suggest an assortment of terrestrials. And the dumpy nature of the dressing is just of the right proportion to fool the lazily absorbed trout which rise in the growing shadows.

Dry Smoke Fly

Hook: Size 16 Partridge SUD2
Thread: Purple Uni 8/0
Tail: Light Blue Dun fibres
Body: Peacock herl
Hackle: Light Blue Dun cock hackle
Head: Peacock herl

This incarnation of a dry fly accompanies me everywhere these days. Where upland farms appear amidst a concentration of scars, and dilapidated grey walls fall down to a beck’s turbulent surface. This dry fly rules supreme. Its buoyant body of peacock herl, and the clear “sighter” of the hackle makes it an easy target for trout and angler alike. The pattern is remarkably effective as the moorland becks shrink, and skylarks sends up their encouragement to summer.

Upland Dales Beck

As a soft hackled wet fly, it first came to prominence in William Robbinson’s list of flies composed in the early 1800s. Here the Smoke Fly features a soft poult feather drawn from a young Moorgame (red grouse). These impossibly hard to find hackles, possess a fine silver lustre, appearing almost transparent. Robinson, like many other Wharfedale anglers, also called the Smoke Fly the Silver Dun, and we encounter it under these two guises in many early Wharfedale manuscripts. Some old timers even included a rib of silver tinsel or wire, with this variation becoming known as the Silver Smoke Fly.

The patriarch of Wharfedale fly-fishers Sylvester Lister, dressed his version of the fly utilising a feather drawn from a Norwegian Crow (Hooded crow). Like the fabled poult grouse feather, these wonderfully soft hackles are also becoming difficult to procure, and an able substitution even more difficult to find.

Smoke Fly (Sylvester Lister)

Hook: 00 (modern size 16)
Silk: Purple
Body: Peacock all the way down, can be ribbed with gold twist
Legs: Dusky white from Norwegian crow or poult wing
Head: Peacock Herl
(May be fished all through the season, particularly on bright days. When ribbed with silver twist, it is called a Silver Smoke fly. Excellent for grayling.)

As either wet fly or a dry fly, the Smoke Fly is a wonderfully peculiar fly pattern. Its thick coat and bulbus head of peacock herl strikes the most ungainly poses. And yet, it is the most effective of curios. Regularly taking both trout and grayling in the most difficult of circumstances. I heel Lister’s affection for this dressing and the river at Barden. Reflectively, I often follow in his footprints along the river. Here, rough moorlands stride down to pine forest, sombre and austere except in spring. And wading through shadows I cast his diminutive fly dressing to the descendants of his capture.

Barden Tower, home of Sylvester Lister

Sunshine and the Dry Fly

Over the past few months, I’ve become fascinated by J. W. Dunne and his mathematical approach to the invention and tying of dry fly patterns with translucent bodies. Name checked by many angling authors, Dunne’s book Sunshine and the Dry Fly, has been resting on my bookshelves for many years without ever really catching my imagination. Until recently, when I came across several of his dry fly patterns produced by Hardy’s in an old film reel tin dating to the 1940s. Opening the tin and investigating the many minute labels attached to each fly brought forth images of a bygone world. It also had the effect of bringing to mind an earlier correspondence with the world renowned flytyer Davy Wotton. And his generous gift of some incredibly fine cellulite silk of the type used in Dunne’s radical fly patterns. These two corresponding events then started me on the notion that I might dress some flies using some of Dunne’s original materials.

Vintage Cellulite Silks

Born on 2 December 1875 in Curragh Camp, a British Army establishment in County Kildare, Ireland. John William Dunne was of a polymath whose wide-ranging interests and professions took in a military career, aeronautic design, and even his own branch of philosophy called Serialism. His book Experiment with Time, containing all his philosophical ideas of precognitive dreams and multidimensional time, being published in March 1927. Provoking a great deal of interest and controversy, Dunne’s book and ideas influenced many writers of the period, including C.S. Lewis, J.B. Priestley and J.R.R. Tolkien amongst others. Priestley later describing Dunne’s Experiment with Time as “one of the most fascinating, most curious, and perhaps the most important books of this age.

Happily, Dunne was also a keen fly-fisher, and I suppose it was only a matter of time (excuse the pun), before he turned his analytical brain to the questions of trout vision and fly design. Through personal observation, he realised that the natural fly was often translucent when seen from below in bright sunlight. A conclusion which gave way to a series of articles in The Field magazine and the writing of his book Sunshine and the Dry Fly.

With the publication of Sunshine and the Dry Fly, Dunne became one of the early modernists to counter Halford’s legacy in relation to the tying of dry flies. Taking aim at Halford and his approach to dressing dry flies. Dunne protested that Halford took his initial observations of natural insect colours under the wrong conditions of light, and that his record of colour was therefore flawed. Dunne’s reasoning being that Halford’s study of insect specimens with their dorsal surfaces in a white saucer and allowing light to fall on their ventral surfaces, reduced the light showing through from the back of the fly and increased that reflected from the ventral surface. All this having the effect of making Halford’s fly body colours were darker than they should have been. Dunne also alluded to further errors within Halford’s use of preserving fluids, which materially altered the colour of the natural flies he had preserved for copying. Dunne’s reasoning being that the body of the living fly was suffused in light which went out in death. Furthermore, after his purchase of some ‘Halford’ patterns, he found that they didn’t resemble the insects which he himself witnessed on the same river as Halford. All this leading Dunne to become fascinated by the idea of replicating the translucency he found within insect bodies.

His thoughts on the transparency of fly bodies led him to experiment with a new range of dry flies which, he argued, were “far more natural looking” than Halford’s aforementioned dry flies. Dunne’s experiments in producing translucent fly bodies were originally undertaken using an underbody of silver tinsel, before hitting on the idea of using white painted hook shanks to produce the translucent effect. Prior to the publication of Sunshine and the Dry Fly, Dunne used “Esplen-d’or” an artificial silk produced by Wardle & Davenport Ltd of Leek in Staffordshire. The artificial silks later being sold by the company to fly-tyers under the name of “Cellulite”. By varying the number of individual colour combinations, Dunne produced a mathematical system of producing fly bodies to the exact colour shade he required using these wonderfully sheer artificial silks. To further aid the impression of translucency, a fantastically named potion called “Sunshine oil” was produced and sold, which when applied to the fly boosted its transparency and aided floatation.

Sunshine Oil

As book sales increased, and his modern mathematical system of producing transparent fly bodies caught the imagination of modern anglers. Leading tackle firms such as Hardy began selling his flies, whilst the fly tying company Messeena & Co also sold cock hackles dyed to Dunne’s instructions and his specially numbered Cellulite silks.

Hook: Size 9.
Thread: Silk M2.
Tails: Cock pheasant tail herls, not dyed. ‘Ends of whisks should be 1 ½ inches from eye of hook.’
Body: ‘2 (298A) + 2 (298) + 2(226). Thickness behind hackle, about 8/100 inch. Taper to half this thickness.’
Rib: Fine gold wire.
Outspread wings: Cut from hackle H2 (including plenty of brown markings). Total spread, 1 ½ inches.
Hackles: Four turns of N behind wings, and four turns of N in front. Maximum width across shank, ¾ inch.
Eyes: Unnecessary.

Sadly, however, Dunne’s empirical system of dry fly design was just too impractical for the amateur fly-tyer. His cellulite silks were also too delicate and provided the most frail of fly dressings. Fiddly in the extreme, the silks were almost impossible to tie with unless using gloves. All these factors leading to his dry flies dying under the weight of more functional designs of the period.

“Mr Dunne, in preparing his series of dry flies, tackled the problem from the view point of the trout, and the results he obtained are the best imitations that have yet been produced. The complete series is stocked by all the leading tackle-makers. The foundation of a Dunne fly is a coat of white paint on the shank on the hook, over which is wound a carefully blended mixture of strands of artificial silk. Before use the body of the fly is anointed with a special oil, which renders the artificial silk semi-transparent, and allows the underlying coat of white paint to shine through the covering. The effect is astonishing. The body looks hollow and translucent, and has exactly the delicate tinted appearance of the natural fly’s abdomen. There is no hint of shank within, and the most educated of trout are unable to distinguish it from the real thing. It is a masterpiece.
Dunne flies have however, one disadvantage. They are difficult and laborious to tie. The hook must first be painted and allowed sufficient time in which to dry. Then the correct shades of artificial silks must be procured and blended according to the formula. And finally, the completed fly requires its own special oil. All of this is too much of a business for the amateur fly-tier who has only an occasional evening at his disposal. What he wants is a convincing imitation which can be tied quickly with materials easily procured. He wants to be able to sit down on a Friday night and rattle off a dozen flies for use during the following week-end, and to feel confident that his creations will deceive the fish. He wants a shortcut to the Dunne effect.”
Robert Hartman – About Fishing 1935

However, despite anglers reservations about the practicality of his fly designs, Dunne’s writings on fly-fishing remain some of the most technically observant in the sport’s history. His production of a range of artificial tying silks and accompanying of fly patterns was a bold and ingenious attempt to solve the real problem of translucency in dry flies. Sadly, however, his mathematical approach was consistent in its disregard for that most inconsistent of variables, namely the British climate. On a dull and overcast day, Dunne’s flies appeared just as lifeless as those of Halford whose dressings he disparaged so much. Even the magical elixir of Sunshine Oil could not bring life to his patterns without the inconsistent aid of bright sunshine overhead. Dunne, as Hartman attests, also underestimated the apathy of amateur fly-tiers, and their need for untaxing and quickly produced fly patterns.

A few Dunne patterns produced by Hardy’s

However, the ever practical Hartman misses one often overlooked aspect of fly-tying. That being the concept that the finished fly can be somewhat of an irrelevance. And that the joy of using supremely delicate materials or the mastering of a process or technique becomes just as much of an inspiration. Having a comprehensive collection of vintage materials and armed with a small quantity of cellulite silks. I spent an enjoyable afternoon rewinding time to produce a few imitations of Dunne’s prescribed dressing. Sadly, because of his mathematical formulas and the lack of any numbering to my gift of Cellulite silks, it was for me impossible to replicate the dressing in Sunshine and the Dry Fly. But as I waited for the white paint to dry on the modern hook shank, I imagined Dunne casting his radical dressings to lazy chalk-stream trout, and remembered his efforts to transcend the limits of substance and time. And pondered, were we both now in a multidimensional time?

A modern Mayfly using vintage Cellulite silks.
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